Rheumatoid arthritis

What is it?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a condition that causes inflammation in many joints of the body. Unlike osteoarthritis which is caused by wear and tear, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease where a faulty immune system attacks the tissue that lines and cushions the joints, leaving them swollen, painful and stiff.

This condition particularly affects the hands, feet, wrists, ankles and knees -and tends to occur symmetrically. That is, if your right big toe joint is swollen and painful, chances are, your left one is too. But RA can also affect other organs. As well as joint pain and stiffness, symptoms include muscle aches, anaemia (a low blood count, leaving you feeling tired) and fever. The stiffness tends to be worse in the morning and after rest.

Who gets it?

Women are three times more likely than men to get it and it tends to affect people between the ages of 30 and 50.

Is it serious?

The severity of the symptoms vary from person to person. According to the Arthritis Research Campaign. About 1 in every 20 will have RA that becomes progressively worse leading to severe damage in a lot of joints while around 1 in 5 will have mild RA that causes few problems, beyond a little pain and stiffness.

How does rheumatoid arthritis affect the feet?

RA affects the smaller joints such as the fingers and toes first, so feet are often one of the first places to be affected. Symptoms usually strike the toes first and may then affect the back of the feet and the ankles. The joints may enlarge and even freeze in one position, so they can't extend fully.

Any kind of foot deformity will cause an uneven distribution of pressure as you walk, making you more likely to develop corns, calluses and ulcers.

You may also get rheumatoid nodules - fleshy lumps that usually occur below the elbows but can appear on the hands and feet too. They may form over bony areas such as the heels and occur in 30 to 40 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis.

What can a podiatrist do?

There are many things a podiatrist can do to make walking less painful:

Joints Arthritis information sheet

Download and view our joints arthritis information sheet (pdf document).